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Neo-fundamentalism *

An Essay on Being Who We Are

Dennis Bratcher

I am becoming increasingly concerned that several high-profile members of the Church of the Nazarene who command attention by their position and influence are openly and aggressively advocating ideas and theologies that are alien to the tradition of which they claim to be a part.  The Church of the Nazarene stands clearly in the Arminian-Wesleyan theological tradition. Yet what some are promoting is far more in line with Calvinism and the promotion of a modern form of fundamentalism (neo-fundamentalism; see note) than they reflect theology and views shaped by Wesleyan perspectives or their own theological tradition.  Several have entered the "battle for the Bible" in significant ways, a battle that has its roots in Calvinistic/Reformed theological perspectives and reflects the influence of the modern fundamentalist movement, which the Church of the Nazarene rejected almost a century ago. That is the same movement that has torn the Southern Baptist Convention apart and threatens to deepen that rift among American churches.

My question is, why should we allow issues and agendas that are not part of our heritage to become central to who we are as Nazarenes with a Wesleyan heritage?  Why are so many Nazarenes so eager to buy into this perversion of our heritage and theology without challenging it, or at least without casting a discerning eye on some of the things that are being promoted by these high profile people and groups?

For example (and there are several I could use), I think Focus on the Family has done a lot of good in the past.  However, recently I have seen them drift further and further toward the fundamentalist or neo-fundamentalist camp.  Much of what comes out of Focus on the Family now is hardly discernable from what is coming out of fundamentalist Baptist organizations. The latest example is Focus on the Family 's denunciation of the new Today's NIV Bible translation as destroying the integrity of Scripture by changing the words of the Bible to promote modern politically correct feminist issues. -1-  At issue is the attempt by the TNIV to render an English translation in a more gender neutral style rather than the masculine dominated language of traditional English translations beginning with the KJV.

It is not so much that Focus on the Family took a position on the issue, as it is the rationale that was used to support their position. Here is a quote from James Dobson's statement on the issue:

Being neither a theologian nor a linguist, I am not qualified to make an assessment of the translation accuracy of the recently released TNIV. However, I have now received sufficient feedback from a large number of evangelical scholars to convince me that this new work is a step backward in the field of biblical translation. [The article from which this was taken is no longer available online; see Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies, February 10, 2002.] -2-

First, I find it interesting that someone who admits that they have no expertise in this area should think it necessary to make a public pronouncement on it.  Perhaps it would be better if people stuck to making "official" pronouncements on issues about which they are actually qualified to comment.  However, what is more important to me is the partial list of "evangelical scholars" that Focus on the Family used as "feedback" to evaluate the TNIV.  Here is that list from their web site:

On Feb. 1, a coalition of 26 scholars issued a statement telling the world they refused to endorse the TNIV. The list is a veritable "Who's Who" of biblical scholars and theologians. Among others, it includes: Dr. Harold O. J. Brown of Reformed Theological Seminary; Dr. R.C. Sproul, of Ligonier Ministries, and a professor at Knox Theological Seminary; Dr. Al Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.; Dr. Paige Patterson, a recent president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Dr. Wayne Grudem of Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society; and Dr. John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn.  [The article from which this quote was taken is no longer available on Focus on the Family's website.]

Note that all of these, all of them, are Calvinists.  None of those listed are from the Wesleyan theological tradition, and most are ardent fundamentalists.  Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, has aggressively led a renewal movement to revive strong five-point Calvinism, including predestination, something that has been in serious decline even among Southern Baptists for decades:  "Every Christian, every Baptist has to believe in predestination."  In 1995 he presided over the demotion and/or firing of female faculty members at Southern Seminary, solely because they are women. According to the fundamentalist agenda, having women in authority over men is a violation of the teachings of Scripture.  Said Mohler:  "I am convinced that this issue will be in the coming decade one of the crucial dividing lines separating evangelicals committed to biblical authority and inerrancy from those who are seeking to transform evangelicalism from within" ("Southern Seminary Stands Firm," The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Vol 1, No. 1, accessed July 3, 2009).

Paige Patterson is a vocal promoter of fundamentalism and one who has tried to equate being evangelical with being a fundamentalist, a title that he would wear proudly.  He is a primary leader in the fundamentalists' successful efforts to take over the Southern Baptist Convention and oust "moderates" from leadership and teaching positions.  He is also vocal about the role of women in the church:  "The Bible is crystal clear that women are not to have the position of ruling and teaching over men." [The article from which this quote was taken is no longer available online.]

Wayne Grudem is a Southern Baptist and a staunch promoter and defender of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, the cornerstone of fundamentalism, as well as classic Calvinistic predestination (developed in his book, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine).  In doing so, he openly attacks Arminian-Wesleyan views of grace and human responsibility.  A reviewer wrote of his book:  "His treatment of the cross leaves no room for the vague, uncertain achievement pictured in Arminian and revivalist theology" [Russell D. Moore in Founders Journal reviewing Wayne Grudhem, Electronic Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, published electronically, accessed July 3, 2009.]

At the time, Grudem also happened to be the president of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  That organization, whose voice is primarily heard in opposing women's involvement in ministry, has roots deep in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Basically, the position of this organization is that all problems in marriage and family come from a failure of the husband to be in charge.  Note one of their statements of belief:  "In both men and women a heartfelt sense of call to ministry should never be used to set aside Biblical criteria for particular ministries. Rather, Biblical teaching should remain the authority for testing our subjective discernment of God's will"  ("Core Beliefs," accessed July 3, 2009). In other words, God himself does not want women in ministry, and any who think otherwise, no matter how "heartfelt" their call, are simply wrong.

Dr. Harold O. J. Brown is an eminently qualified scholar, but is still decidedly Reformed in his theology.  R. C. Sproul has had a working relationship with James Dobson for some time, largely because they both tend to focus on psychological approaches to spiritual maturity and growth.  Still, he is clearly Reformed is his views.

Also quoted in Focus on the Family 's article are Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Dr. Vern Poythress, a biblical professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Both of these are Reformed/Calvinistic scholars with strong leanings toward fundamentalism.

There are also comments from Tim Bayly, a Reformed pastor (Presbyterian) who has served as the executive director for The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1996-200).  This pastor refers to "conservative evangelical pastors" as those who should support a literalist and fundamentalist reading of Scripture and implies that any deviation from that is support of "the reigning feminist ideology." [The article from which his comments were taken is no longer available online.]

So, I wonder, could not Focus on the Family find any Wesleyan biblical scholars to inform their decision?  Do they even care what Wesleyan scholars think about the issue?

I looked over the 100 examples of "mistranslated" passages and "errors" in the TNIV given elsewhere on the web by those quoted by Focus on the Family. Not a single one of those examples were instances of either an error or a mistranslation, except as viewed from the ideology of what a certain theological position thinks ought to be the truth of God. All of them are cases in which cultural and historical issues influenced the text, which allows translation to reflect a different cultural context (as any translation always does).

For example, besides issues of culture and history, there are simple issues of language. Contrary to English many languages, both Hebrew and Greek included, have grammatical gender. That is, there is no way to make a sentence or use a verb form without using grammatical gender. For example, all verbs in Hebrew must be either masculine or feminine.  It has little to do with physical gender; it is just a grammatical feature of the language.  While Greek has a "neuter" grammatical gender, it is not normally used when talking about people. It is used more for abstractions.  Usually the default grammatical gender in most languages is masculine. Hebrew has no neuter gender, so everything must either be either masculine or feminine.  All Hebrew nouns and pronouns also have grammatical gender, so all sentences in Hebrew are gender specific grammatically.  Again, largely because of culture, the default gender is masculine when there is no specific reason to use feminine forms or words or when there is a mixed gender group (either physical gender or nouns with grammatical gender).

The practical result of this is that, for example, in Hebrew the term "son" is not always a physical gender term at all.  That is why many English translations for many years (for example, NRSV) have often translated "sons of Israel" as "people of Israel" or "Israelites."  A good example of the difference is in Exodus 1:1-8.  The first reference to "sons of Israel" in 1:1 is to the twelve male descendants of Jacob, so the proper translation is "sons."  However, just a few verses later in 1:7 the identical phrase in Hebrew, "sons of Israel," is usually translated "Israelites" (and could be translated "people of Israel") because it obviously refers to the entire nation of Israel.  "Sons" is partly a cultural term; but the fact is the verbs require a grammatical gender regardless.

That all means that often it is a translation issue when to preserve gender and when to read it as generic. It is the result of grammatical gender in the language or a feature of the culture that is not a specific part of the message communicated. It is not an issue of the truth of God but rather an issue of accurately communicating in a receptor language the meaning of the original language.  Of course, it is possible that "political correctness" run rampant could subvert the biblical message.  But we also ought to allow translators to do their job in translating the text into readable English without arguing corruption just because someone makes a change to something that we like (or don't like) or that fits our own theological biases, no matter how well founded we think our views might be.

The purpose of a translation is to facilitate communication while being faithful to the original text.  In some cases, that means translating gender specific biblical language into generic language in English. That is not the promotion of any modern form of political correctness, except perhaps to correct the practices of the past in which masculine references dominated because of a reverse form of political correctness, a factor too often ignored in such discussions.  Rather, it is an honest attempt to duplicate the text and its message in language that communicates in the modern world.

As Sarah Grimke, a leader of the abolitionist movement and an outspoken advocate for the equality of women in the Church and society, wrote in 1837:

The New Testament has been referred to, and I am willing to abide by its decisions, but must enter my protest against the false translation of some passages by the men who did that work, and against the perverted interpretation by the men who undertook to write commentaries on it. I am inclined to think, when we are admitted to the honor of studying Greek and Hebrew, we shall produce some various readings of the Bible a little different from those we now have. (Letters on the Equality of the Sexes)

It seems that we are finally able to address some of those issues of translation.

I think the tendency to demand that Scripture reflect our own particular theological agendas, seen in the Southern Baptist and Focus on the Family’s reaction to the TNIV, is a far more serious problem than many might want to acknowledge.  It is problematic precisely because it promotes a strongly ideologically-based agenda at the same time that it attacks any other view as only an ideologically based agenda. And it does so by claiming that their view is the only thing that the Bible teaches.  That is the essence of modern neo-fundamentalism* as a sociological religious phenomenon.

This entire attack against the gender inclusive language of the TNIV, from both Southern Baptists and Focus on the Family, assumes the Southern Baptist view that women cannot and should not have any authority over men in any aspect of religious instruction.  This in effect eliminates women from any teaching or leadership roles in the Church in which they would have any authority over men. And then it demands that the Bible be translated in such a way as to preserve and promote that agenda.

In this case, it does so by presenting a view that the Church of Nazarene does not accept, that was not accepted by the American Holiness Movement, and that has never been a part of Wesleyan or Methodist heritage.  Again, I simply ask, WHY?  Why are some people so willing aggressively and militantly to promote ideas that are totally at odds with the tradition and church of which they claim to be a part?

Now, as I often argue, we as Christians need to focus more on what unites us as Christians than what divides us (see A Catholic Spirit and A World Parish and A Catholic Spirit).  I still passionately believe that.  However, there are differences, and those differences are what make us who we are (see The Third Generation).  It is not a matter of salvation; we are not saved based on what we believe (that is a Wesleyan position that would not be accepted by fundamentalists or by many Calvinists!).  But we do live our lives based on what we believe.  That comes out in many practical ways, such as what position we take on women in ministry.  We Nazarenes simply are not Calvinists, nor are we fundamentalists, old or new.  We never have been and I hope that we do not become so.  If we are to remain who we have been, which I think there is some value in doing, then we need to be able to identify what we are not as well as what we are! And we are not fundamentalists or neo-fundamentalists!

Yet, what I see unfolding now are people who are basically Calvinistic in their theology promoting that brand of theology as if it were the same as what Arminian-Wesleyan Nazarenes believe. It is not.  Fundamentalism and Calvinism are theological systems that are essentially and almost diametrically opposed to Wesleyan views, which is why so many, like Mohler's renewal group, fight so hard and sometimes bitterly against Wesleyans.  They conceptualize God and human beings in radically different ways than Wesleyans, which leads them to see Scripture in significantly different ways.  That difference impacts how we live in the world as Christians, which is why I think it is an important issue.  It is that difference that leads Calvinist fundamentalists to fight constantly with almost everyone, while a genuinely Wesleyan view calls for a catholic spirit.

Now, I am perfectly content with seeing fundamentalists and Baptists and Calvinists and Reformed as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I have no need to fight with them.  But that is not the issue here.  The issue is whether we really believe our Wesleyan heritage.  If people do not, then I suggest that they be honest about it, and call themselves Southern Baptists or take the title Reformed rather than promoting those theological agenda under the cover of being Wesleyan or Nazarene, or trying to change those traditions to conform to their own ideas.  And if we are to remain faithful to our own Wesleyan and, I think, biblical understanding of free grace and human responsibility rather than predestination and determinism, as well as the egalitarian aspects of the Gospel, the Good News for all people and not just some, then we need to be discerning in what we buy as the truth, especially if we are going to promote it to others as the truth of God.

Notes

* "Classic" fundamentalism was built around a set of "fundamentals" of the faith that, it was assumed, all Christians would believe.  However, the single idea of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture emerged as the defining feature of fundamentalism following the 1920s.  That was linked with dictation views of inspiration, later modified into verbal inspiration theories.  Fundamentalism gradually morphed into a mindset of infallible interpretation of Scripture (ideas about Scripture) in which one set of beliefs or interpretation was viewed as the only truth of God and all other views were automatically wrong and non-Christian.  Neo-fundamentalism has taken that mentality and expanded it to include ethical views on a range of social issues.  It is still grounded in a certain ideology of Scripture, but is most often expressed in proclaiming the only "true" Christian position on a range more immediate contemporary issues, primarily certain views of 1) creation, 2) abortion, 2) homosexuality, 4) gender issues, and 5) certain political ideologies.  That is what allows those issues for neo-fundamentalists to be the criteria for being "evangelical" (meaning in most cases "fundamentalist") or in some cases for being genuine Christians. [return]

1. This article was originally written in 2002.

2. The complete Statement by James Dobson:

I am disappointed over the International Bible Society's decision to withdraw their endorsement from the Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture.  These guidelines were formulated in 1997 with great care and with the full participation of IBS.  Their intent was to ensure that future translation of the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible would be done consistently and accurately, in accordance with the accepted principles of translation.

When the Conference on Gender-Related Language in Scripture came to a close, I believed that all participating parties shared a firm commitment to the guidelines upon which we had agreed.  That is why it is particularly unfortunate that the IBS has now chosen to go its own way.  In so doing, it risks dividing the Christian community again, as well as damaging its own reputation and undermining the wonderful work in which it has been engaged for more than 150 years.

Being neither a theologian nor a linguist, I am not qualified to make an assessment of the translation accuracy of the recently released TNIV. However, I have now received sufficient feedback from a large number of evangelical scholars to convince me that this new work is a step backward in the field of biblical translation. Accordingly, I am now adding my name to the list of those who disagree with the liberties IBS has taken with God's Word in the new translation.

I love the Scriptures and I know them to be the very words of God to His creation.  Like most evangelical Christians, I want my Bible to contain an accurate translation of the canonical Hebrew and Greek texts.  Accordingly, I will continue to speak out against any effort that alters God's Word or toys with translation methodology for the sake of "political correctness." [James Dobson, February, 2002]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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